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US not required to help Navajo Nation access water, Supreme Court says

Water resources are becoming more scarce in the Western U.S., and a Supreme Court ruling delivers a major blow to the Navajo Nation.
US not required to help Navajo Nation access water, Supreme Court says
Posted at 8:21 AM, Jun 22, 2023

The federal government is not required to provide access to the Colorado River to residents of the Navajo Nation Reservation, the Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision Thursday. 

Justice Neil Gorsuch broke with the court's other conservatives in his dissent. 

The case was a loss for the Navajos as they claimed the U.S. has interfered with their water access. They contend that an 1868 treaty requires the U.S. to provide them with water access. The tribe says the U.S. is required by the treaty to help provide pipelines, pumps and other infrastructure to allow them to better access water. 

But the Supreme Court ruled the U.S. is not obligated to do so. It says, instead, that Congress and the president can enact laws to assist Navajos with their water needs. 

"It is not the Judiciary’s role to rewrite and update this 155-year-old treaty. Rather, Congress and the President may enact — and often have enacted — laws to assist the citizens of the western United States, including the Navajos, with their water needs," wrote Justice Brett Kavanaugh in his majority opinion. 

The ruling comes as states and other groups battle over access to water from the Colorado River. Increasing population, climate change and droughts have combined to make water resources more scarce in the Southwestern U.S.

SEE MORE: Tribe, US officials reach deal to save Colorado River water

Terri James, an agricultural science teacher at a Navajo Nation high school, told Scripps News in March that water supplies have dwindled on the reservation.

There have been necessary changes to generations of farming practices as the Colorado River drains and Western states surrounding the Navajo fight for what's left.

"They're basically supplying double the population with about the same amount of water that they were 20-plus years ago," Colorado State Sen. Cleave Simpson previously told Scripps News.

Gorsuch was strong in his rebuttal of the majority opinion.

"Where do the Navajo go from here? To date, their efforts to find out what water rights the United States holds for them have produced an experience familiar to any American who has spent time at the Department of Motor Vehicles," Gorsuch wrote. "The Navajo have waited patiently for someone, anyone, to help them, only to be told (repeatedly) that they have been standing in the wrong line and must try another. 

"To this day, the United States has never denied that the Navajo may have water rights in the mainstream of the Colorado River (and perhaps elsewhere) that it holds in trust for the Tribe. Instead, the government’s constant refrain is that the Navajo can have all they ask for; they just need to go somewhere else and do something else first."

Reporting from James Packard was used in this article.

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